A ‘no miracles’ argument is still prevalent in the scientific realism debate, even if a lot has changed since Hilary Putnam’s formulation of it, and even if the word ‘miracle’ is generally avoided. For example, realists think that if the most central ‘working’ parts of a scientific theory were not even approximately true (for any serious theory of ‘approximate truth’), then it would be incredibly unlikely (‘miraculous’) for that theory to deliver successful novel predictions with ‘perfect’ quantitative accuracy (e.g. to several significant figures). It would be like perfectly predicting the time and position of the next solar eclipse based on a completely false (not even approximately true) model of how the sun, moon, and earth interact. Here it is appropriate to talk in terms of ‘counterexamples’ to scientific realism: any historical case where a scientific theory delivered ‘perfect’ predictions but where the central working parts of the theory are now thought to be radically false would be a very serious thorn in the side of nearly every contemporary scientific realist position.
Philosophers of science of all stripes draw on the history of science. However, within philosophy of science there are diverging trends between literature in the history and philosophy of science and the work in (what often goes under the name of) ‘general’ philosophy of science. With the caveat that what follows paints a picture with very broad brushstrokes, the trend among those working on integrated history and philosophy of science is towards recognizing particular differences between scientific fields, periods, and practitioners. On the other hand, the driving motivation in general philosophy of science is towards unified frameworks and theories.
How exactly are the history and philosophy of science supposed to come together? In the case of the scientific realism debate there is a relatively straight forward answer to this. In short, scientific realists are keen to make some sort of success-to-truth inference. Typically they state that when scientific success is sufficiently impressive, we ought to infer that the hypotheses (or parts or aspects of the theory) that generated this success are at least approximately true. This allows for the possibility that, in the history of science, one might find just that sort of success, born of a theory/set of hypotheses that are definitely not approximately true (whatever your take on ‘approximate truth’). Even allowing for one or two exceptions, the possibility arises that there might be many such cases in the history of science. This makes many scientific realist positions falsifiable—loosely speaking, at least. But as things stand, nobody knows which contemporary realist positions (if any) are indeed falsified because we just don’t have at hand the relevant historical ‘facts’ (again, speaking loosely). What we need to make progress is careful and detailed history of science, dealing with relevant historical episodes…
BJPS Co-Chief Editor Michela Massimi and Professor of Astronomy Ofer Lahav have written a piece for Astronomy & Geophysics on the Standard Model. Just how many anomalies are necessary for a paradigm shift?